F1 2021 delivers the gritty glamour of a must-see sport on the rise

F1 2021 delivers the gritty glamour of a must-see sport on the rise

angled picture of the rear of Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri rounding the last corner at Red Bull Ring
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

Newcomers will enjoy a Drive To Survive-like story mode, and old-timers get a slew of options to extend their experience

In F1 2020, I took advantage of 4,811 flashbacks in more than 122 hours of on-track time, or almost 40 per hour. Flashbacks are when the driver, in a single-player mode, rewinds the game to the point where they made a mistake, like a daring move that proved horrifically reckless, for a do-over. In F1 2020, the flashback menu option is an unlimited-or-nothing user assist.

But in F1 2021, diehards and perfectionists like me who shamefully admit their flashback dependency can taper their use again. Racing with a high, medium, or low number of flashbacks (or unlimited, or none) is a simple difficulty setting, one of many brought back or added to the game in anticipation of a larger video game audience following a spectator sport on the move.

The limited flashbacks are hardly the biggest or best inclusion in a sports title packed with a narrative mode, two equally deep career arcs, and drive-the-wheels-off multiplayer helped greatly by new lobbies. For me personally, more than any other detail, the limited flashbacks have unlocked the real world of Formula 1 racing — the one that is dangerous, messy, risky, and more meaningful than the manicured, golden-boy vision of myself I’d had the past five years.

Sebastian Vettel for Aston Martin at the team’s home track, Silverstone
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts
With Aston Martin’s return this year (and Alpine’s new livery), F1’s grid has British Racing Green, the Bleu de France, and Rosso Corsa all together for the first time in years.

That’s the version thousands of new fans have come to know through three seasons of Netflix’s hit series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a large, new audience that Codemasters clearly expects to come calling on this video game. They will find a lot of what makes Drive to Survive such a great binge — breathless cockpit audio, grudging paddock summits, and sharp-elbowed battles in the corners — inside “Braking Point,” F1 2021’s story mode.

It’s more than an onboarding wrapper spooning out basic lessons. Braking Point’s 17 chapters pose a reasonable challenge without resorting to staged occurrences, like a big wipeout or a leader inexplicably losing power. All of its chapters have a win/lose fail state, though, and it hamstrings a rather rote story: Hotshot rookie Aiden Jackson butts heads with old-timer teammate Casper Akkerman, before both unite to take down super-heel Devon Butler in the 2021 finale at Abu Dhabi. But Braking Point still should deliver six to eight hours of sports theater and superstar lifestyle that is worth seeing to the end.

Unlike Madden NFL’s Face of the Franchise, or NBA 2K’s MyCareer preamble, which are played on their game’s easiest difficulty, Braking Point gives the user three options, with the hardest mainly there for advanced players using a driving wheel and a manual transmission. Normal difficulty is really only if you want to speed through the chapters, all of which pay off with customization unlocks.

Devon Butler, driving for AlphaTauri, is the villain of F1 2021’s Braking Point story mode
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts
Punchable face Devon Butler is back in F1 2021’s Braking Point story mode, and he’s even more snide than he was in F1 2019.

Braking Point’s biggest limitation is that, unlike Madden or NBA 2K, the story does not extend into F1 2021’s excellent Career or My Team modes. A story with a pre-made character definitely does not fit the driver/team-owner conceit of My Team, but I don’t see why it couldn’t continue into Career, with an option to continue as Jackson or your created driver. Career’s biggest upgrade is a remarkable cooperative/competitive two-player fork, where two friends can drive in a shared alternate reality. It still depends on two users coordinating race times, a big reason so many multiplayer racing leagues (introduced in F1 2019) fall apart soon after formation. But the context is more intimate than NBA 2K’s MyPlayer MMO, and players may be teammates, unlike Madden’s Connected Franchise. It’s a step I’d like to see more sports video games take, particularly MLB The Show.

My Team, the breakthrough mode of F1 2020, comes back largely in the same state, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same experience. Codemasters shook up the stale practice format and development incentives serving both My Team and Career, and it’s a deep breath of fresh air. Instead of plodding through the same six practice programs at every track, players now get three randomly assigned minigames (from the old list of six, to be sure), as well as three bonus objectives that dramatically affect development of the car. These bonus objectives are achieved outside of the minigames, which encourages taking the car out for several unstructured laps for something other than the role-playing hell of it. For those who don’t like practice at all, there is a time-allocation minigame that allows players to develop their car without simply background-simulating the whole session.

The practice bonuses will be delivered in the form of cheaper parts in a new, streamlined R&D format that drops the series’ old perk tree approach. Progression through the car’s various systems upgrades is still largely the same as the perk tree, with lower-impact changes gating bigger breakthroughs later. Crucially, though, there is a difficulty modifier that either reduces or increases the resource points your team generates in practice. This same modifier can alter how much money a team earns, or Acclaim, the reputational stat that helps you sign big-name drivers in My Team.

A menu in F1 2021 showing all of the difficulty options a user may select
Image: Codemasters/EA Sports via Polygon

Slowing the flow of assets is a real service to long-haul players like myself, who last year could make the top 10 of qualifying with a brand-new car, against AI difficulties in the 90s or 100s. It effectively gives us a “hardcore mode,” which fans started agitating for shortly after F1 2020’s launch last summer. Even better, there’s a modifier that will introduce random mishaps to your race weekend if you really want greater realism. Before, technical faults affecting the car before the race were pretty rare. (And in F1 2021, random engine failures during a race are still triggered only by worn-out parts.) The ones that did occur were usually minor, skippable delays in a practice. Now it sounds like you can have more frequent system faults, of longer duration, maybe even wiping out a qualifying session. That may not necessarily be “fun” — which is why this is a setting for the user to implement, and not a default — but it’s more like real life.

All of this folds back into what charmed me about F1 2021 in the first place: the grittiness, the aggression, and the mistakes that make up a real grand prix, all the errors and imperfections that I’d swabbed with Wite-Out thanks to unlimited flashbacks. I can feel the game’s new track-surface modeling — or I think I do, anyway — when I’m throttling up, whipping left through turn 2 in Bahrain with no do-overs, hoping I have enough downforce on my front wing to nudge the car back to the right on turn 3.

I used to set rules for myself about using flashbacks — never in practice, once in qualifying, only for a collision in a race — but I always broke them. Now, if I know going into a full race that I’ve only got two flashbacks, that absolutely alters my strategy. If I’ve got only one flashback in qualifying, it makes that second lap I’m running more of a gamble, as opposed to a revision, where I can always take a tenth of a second off my time by trying and retrying and retrying Albert Park’s white-knuckle turn 11 and 12 complex.

It comes through even in Braking Point, an experience where I’m supposed to be the hero and the superstar. Early on, teammate Akkerman belted me out of the way at the Chinese Grand Prix. A shaken Aiden Jackson vowed revenge. The goal was to overtake Akkerman before race’s end. I made it, but by the time I reached him in Shanghai’s winding turns 1 through 4, I couldn’t hold my line and I ran wide into Akkerman, forcing him off the track. He recovered, and there was no penalty, but this is something I’d ordinarily flashback just because I’d prefer not to benefit from such a collision. Well, I had no flashbacks left, Casper.

Codemasters’ F1 series has taken hundreds of hours from me since 2017, and in return it’s given me a rich, new sports fandom even in my late 40s. And now, F1 2021 is teaching me to expect imperfection, to own my mistakes, and forgive myself. The result may be messy, but it’s mine.

F1 2021 launched July 16 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using an Xbox Series X download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.